Song of the South

Trish Murphy, literate regionalist

Singer-songwriter Trish Murphy feels a particular warmth for Dallas. "The Dallas music scene really brought me back to life," she says. "When I was at school [at the University of Dallas], Deep Ellum was in its beautiful early phase, this amazingly fertile, creative environment. I remember living out in Irving and just getting in the car and going down there. I'd hit the Prophet Bar, Club Dada, Club Clearview almost every single night, whether I was with friends or by myself--it was just an amazing place to be."

Perhaps she was remembering some of that energy at her last gig at Poor David's as she poured out some of the freshest, sharpest songcraft in recent memory, accomplishing a fusion of rock, country, and folk that recalls the best work of Tom Petty and John Prine. She and her band--brother Darin on drums, David Lucas on bass, and newest addition Cary Bowman (late of the Coffee Sergeants) on guitar--yield up equal portions of Texas twang, bar-band crash and jangle, and campfire strum-along that remind one of Willis Alan Ramsey fronting the Wallflowers. Murphy--a slender blonde whose voice makes sure you never think of her as slight--is a deceptively young-looking 32, but has a command of the stage more appropriate to someone a decade older. It's a mastery all the more impressive for the chumminess with which she pulls it off, never seeming distant or remote, yet never yielding her identity as the person on the stage.

Brawnier in her delivery than Carrie Newcomer, more cosmopolitan than Trisha Yearwood, her intelligent wordplay suggests Nanci Griffith's brain working Lucinda Williams' pipes. Strumming her acoustic guitar as the band whips along their amalgam of classic American styles, she tickles that part of the brain that produces that pulse-quickening hey, we might just have something here.

Murphy grew up in the Heights section of Houston. Her dad, Darrell, was a "hippie songwriter" who had a pop band called the Family Plot, a contemporary of vaguely recalled bands such as Bubble Puppy and Ozz Knozz. Darrell and Hallie Murphy had married young--17--and the kids grew up in a house full of music. Trish's first concert was the Hurricane Carter benefit Bob Dylan staged at the Astrodome in 1976. "I always felt pretty proprietary about music as a kid," she remembers. "I was always aware that I knew more about music, certainly more than anybody my age. When I was 10 or 11, I was just learning to play the guitar, and there were all these 20-to-25-year-old musician friends of my dad's who really treated me as a peer."

As proprietary as Murphy may have felt toward music, there was also ambivalence. As she finished high school, she "began to feel like I was out of contributions, so I decided to focus on other things--if I wasn't going to be a songwriter, I'd see what other things I'm good at." That led her to UD in Irving, where she majored in psychology, developed a passion for drama, traveled to Europe, and "didn't pay that much attention" to her making music. Upon graduation, she returned to Europe for what she describes as a "three-week job interview" for a position with the Wall Street Journal. "I was convinced that I'd go there and live this expat lifestyle and have this great intellectual career," she says.

It didn't work out that way. "I got there and was absolutely depressed," she recalls, her usually sunny voice still darkening a bit at the thought. "I knew I was supposed to be a writer, but not this kind, and I had these weird work hours, like from four to midnight, and the rest of the time I spent in the bathtub of the Grand hotel, listening to Suzanne Vega and Prefab Sprout records."

It was a defining moment. "At the time, the music really saved me...it was like a guiding voice, and when I got back stateside I had to call the Journal editor in Paris and turn the job down," she says. "It was a huge catharsis, my realizing that I really couldn't be happy without some creative outlet. I was missing my direction, but by abandoning it, I rediscovered how vital it was to me. It was like doing this might kill me, but I'll die if I don't--there was no alternative."

She spent a year in Los Angeles, accompanied by her ever-present notebook in which she'd scribble ideas, and then came back to Houston in 1989. Before you could say "Jackopierce," she and her brother Darin started playing together in a folksy duo, starting out at coffeehouses and the like as Trish and Darin. Although some found them cutesy and derivative, T&D became quite popular in their hometown, putting out several albums, adding a rhythm section, and getting to the point where they were filling 400-seat clubs.

The duo broke up in 1995; Darin had earlier moved to Austin and was tired of the commute, and there were other issues. "We each had our own songs," Trish explains, "and the new stuff we were writing was trying to include too much. As we got stronger, our sound couldn't accommodate [both styles]; Darin was very much the pop element, while I was the soul and twang." The breakup turned out to be beneficial. "It was like a company splitting its stock; what we each brought to the duo we just took away and broadened for our solo careers. We played our last gig as Trish and Darin, and the next day started writing new songs together. There's enough there, like the Uncle Tupelo-Wilco-Son Volt thing; Darin is definitely the Jeff Tweedy, and I'm the Jay Farrar."

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